Every day in South Africa, rhinos are killed at a rate of three per day. This is due to the reported 9000% rise in poaching since 2007, which has grown into a war involving AK-47's, pipe bombs and severe economic manipulation. In this growing crisis, Eco Defense Group (EDGE) is seeking to learn and partner with local communities to see an end to poaching and wildlife endangerment.
EDGE President Nathan Edmondson insists that he was simply in the right place, at the right time. During his time as a screenwriter and comic book writer, he became aware of anti-poaching efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa using community-based resources. He went looking for a story — but soon found much more.
Nathan found and began working with professionals performing security development and genetic research in African National Parks. With the goal of creating effective solutions to endangerment and poaching issues, they decided that all their work would be in partnership with local communities. In coordination with United States special operations and several scientists, Nathan’s team formed the Eco Defense Group (EDGE) — a multifaceted organization promoting community-based conservation and counter-poaching efforts.
"We are unique in that we were founded out of need, not of purpose," said Nathan. "No one woke up and headed to Africa to make a difference. We found ourselves at the right place and right time to develop and carry on some very effective things that had already started.”
Conservation in South Africa presents unique problems that require collaborative solutions. EDGE connects local communities and expertise to resources, and works with them to find innovative solutions to these problems. Whether performing ambitious genetic research, security development or educational programs, their work spans multiple partners and projects.
"It's impractical to protect a place without inviting support from inside and the next generation," said Nathan. "Connecting with youth, hosting photography clubs, building playgrounds — things like that connect the next generation to being wildlife lovers and protectors.”
Two of Edmondson's team members are among the top former special operations K-9 trainers in the world. They have experience in developing counter-poaching K-9 dogs in African National Parks, and are responsible for the only two patrol dogs in all of Sub-Saharan Africa with a significant success rate. With this expertise, EDGE understands that it is vital to include dogs as a valuable part of their conservation work.
"We love seeing wildlife protecting wildlife," said Nathan. "We're looking for every way to empower those dogs. Rex Specs clear and sunshade goggles, for example, help when dogs deploy into bright sun and thick, tangled brush."
These supremely effective K-9's jump out of vehicles and plunge into the bush, using their senses and training to navigate the environment and apprehend poachers. Last year, EDGE brought eight special operations rangers to the U.S. for professional development and combined learning. They practiced working with a K-9 program and learning man-hunting strategies.
"Everything must be done in partnership," insists Nathan. "We have to work slowly, carefully, and always with an instinct to keep learning from our partners on the ground. We're always listening more than we speak."
EDGE's work also involves a cutting edge genetic study of elephants. Elephants throughout Africa are faced with an ongoing problem. Without much land left to them, they aren't migrating, breeding or able to access rich nutrients as they once did. As a result, they're often in conflict with local populations.
In partnership with RHCRU (Rory Hensman Conservation and Research Unit), EDGE's genetic study hopes to mitigate this by analyzing elephant genetics to understand when breeding will begin. Elephants have an instinct never to inbreed, so they inevitably move away from the herd to spread their genetics. If researchers can analyze and anticipate what an elephant population's family tree structure may look like, they can subsequently learn when they will be coming into conflict with local communities. This work can prevent elephants from breaking fences, killing farmers and getting shot.
Elephants and many other large endangered species have more value dead than alive. For a community supported by poaching, a rhino is far more valuable dead with its horn removed than it would be alive in a field. EDGE is seeking community-based solutions to change this.
"We're doing whatever we can do to make these animals have more value alive than dead," said Nathan. "It's a paradigm shift, but you can only do that with coordination with local communities. When we teach the kids photography this month, we're going to expose them directly to elephants and help guide them to scholarships for photography. Their connection with wildlife does not just involve seeing it in a new way and coming to love it, but also economic and career opportunities. There's a new way where their animal can make them money, so they can protect it not just with affection but with economics."
Currently, EDGE is looking to bring a security development plan to an area that is home to the 3rd highest concentrated rhino population in the world — but is also unprepared for the poaching crisis that is moving into its area. Recently, they hosted world-famous Red Bull skydiver Jeff Provenzano for a jump to raise awareness about their efforts to protect rhino in Limpopo, South Africa. This month, they are organizing and equipping people on the ground to deter and combat poaching.
Along with this, EDGE is also involved with a ranger program to bring back horseback controls into the system. Park rangers have not been on a horse in about 100 years, but getting back to these basics can be more efficient and cost-effective. Besides being environmentally friendly, horses can navigate the bush in a more effective, quieter way than vehicles can.
EDGE’s community-based approach is unique to the world of conservation, but certainly impactful. To sustain their ambitious projects and conservation work, EDGE is seeking financial partners. They have multiple opportunities for donations, including adopting an elephant and sponsoring a playground. You can also buy merchandise from their shop or donate directly.
You can keep up with EDGE’s work on their social media channels or their recently launched Conservation Podcast! For more information, visit www.ecodefensegroup.org.